Go See ‘Claire Went to France’? Abso-arfin-lutely!

claireChris Caporlingua Aliee Chan (l) as the Real Girl, Scott Cagney (c)
as the Dog, and Tony K. Knotts (r) as Johnathon.

“Well. At least I can always kill myself,” says Johnathon, the everyman protagonist of “Claire Went to France,” at the beginning of Ben Clawson’s new play. His anthropomorphic dog ignores the comment and keeps watching TV, and his grandpa continues to play solitaire after complaining about “jokes about things that aren’t funny.”

Much of this play, which turns the cellar-like Under St. Mark’s into Johnathon’s living room and the prism through which we view his dreary life, is exactly that: Johnathon’s ex-girlfriend barrages him with spectacular insults from the closet, his dog tries to convince him to masturbate to waste time, and the grandpa, like some Judge of History, spews grand truths which contradict from moment to moment.

Yes, Johnathon’s ex lives in his closet. She is, in fact, chained there, which prompts the realization that the grandpa, too, is a slave: Johnathon lives with his memories and passes time by talking to himself about passing the time.

claire2Chris Caporlingua Johnathon (l) and Shannon Sullivan (r)
as the Ex

His one chance to break this cycle was the woman named only in the title, Claire, who left for France the week after they had met. He has repressed this memory, and refused to again open himself to such hurt. But at a local bar, he meets the character he affectionately calls Real Girl (a clue that this will not end in “and they lived happily ever after”), who might just be the fulfillment he’s been seeking.

The Beckettian construction (the finale makes a great reference to “Endgame”) is well-embellished by genuinely side-splitting humor. Playing Johnathon’s dog, Scott Cagney bellows things like “No arfin’ way!” with a straight face, caricaturing the space only canines can inhabit between selfless loyalty and mindless hedonism.

At his best, Mr. Clawson’s dialogue is tragicomic gold. Waiting to leave for his first date (naturally so as not to arrive early and seem like “this is the only thing I’ve got occurring for the rest of my entire empty life”), Johnathon has a realization: “I have seven minutes to be alive till then.”

At his worst, Mr. Clawson tries to show that his dialogue is tragicomic gold. A particularly egregious line comes from the ex-girlfriend, speaking about Johnathon: “Everything the matter with America is the matter with him. And vice versa.” Director Artome Yatsunov’s prominent display of Johnathon’s stars-and-stripes underwear is a subtler and infinitely funnier way of expressing this thought.

Fortunately these ham-fisted moments are few and far between, and the pace of the comedy – almost slapstick at times – ensures these silent seconds pass quickly. Mr. Clawson’s smart synthesis of dour absurdism and absurdly good humor reveals itself capable of carrying warmth with ease: as we learn from the wonderful last lines, we die. . . but we do other things, too.

“Claire Went to France,” through June 2 at Under St. Marks, 94 St. Marks Place; (212) 777-6088, horsetrade.info